THREE CHEERS FOR NEW EQUALITY BILL
Three cheers for a Bill of rights for the old, gay, disabled, female and taken-for-granted…
We have seen times and the law change attitudes. The new Equality Bill is the next step
Some people just don’t get it, do they? They fulminate against a new and elaborate government Bill, almost as a knee-jerk reaction. They rage against proposals that, in the calm light of day, taken one by one, they would endorse. They use short-sighted criticism as a means to offload all the bile swilling around the other issues of government – fiscal and monetary, business and investment.
Yes, there is lots to be bewildered about, to be angry about, and we need fall guys and scapegoats to make us feel better. But why dump on those very people who are having the hardest time: the disabled, working mothers, the old, the retired, those who by their sexuality or ethnicity are unfairly treated? These people are at last being given a break in a massive piece of government legislation: the new Equality Bill. To attack the Bill is implicitly to attack them and any claims that they might have to be treated fairly in our supposedly just society.
Equality is a tricky word, and to give it such a high public profile is to court argument that will go on for ever. We are all familiar with the text, and some of it goes like this: men and women are different creatures; women’s anatomy equips them for a different destiny – their emotional responses are more personal, their intellectual capacities are particular to them and, what’s more, their cultural background leaves them free to make the choices they do. Most women who marry choose freely to do so and having children further endorses the freedoms they enjoy.
Quite how much of a free choice it is to mop the floors of hospitals or swill the bedpans of the old for a minimum wage before rushing home to make tea for cantankerous youngsters is a theoretical argument that would floor the most cunning philosopher. All I know is that it certainly can’t feel free and equal, especially when compared with the lot of men working at the same level with fewer of life’s problems looking to them for solution.
That’s why it is important that the Equality Bill’s gender audit brings to light the many situations in which, by enforced secrecy and manipulation, employers have for decades cheated women of the equal pay and end of sex discrimination that Barbara Castle enshrined in law decades ago. What began in the 1970s to change us into a more just and fair society takes its next major stride with this Bill.
Many naysayers voice objections in the cause of not making life hard for businesses. Small businesses touch a particular chord. But such strictures are entirely ignoring the world in which we live. Take the case of the old: the figures are now achingly familiar. Britain has ten million over-65s already and will have 20 million ten years from now. The over-50s represent 80 per cent of the country’s wealth. Many of their concerns will be addressed by the new Bill: travel insurance, for instance, which currently leaps when you pass 70, will have to reflect the risk being faced accurately. Some will not: employment is one. Many older people have skills and experience, yet at present employers can enforce retirement at the age of 65.
However, the picture is already changing. Wise and enterprising businesses are even now trying out new ways of employing the old. B&Q famously recruited over-50s to its information desks. Attendance rates improved, absenteeism slumped and customers were pleased with the friendly advice. It is good business to adapt your working practice to optimise what the community around you has to offer.
Increasingly, enlightened businesses are taking positive steps towards creating a truly age-diverse workforce. The Employers Forum on Age has some 250 member organisations that promote real, practical change in the workplace. In March I handed out awards to those who had made the best contribution: McDonald’s and British Gas were among the winners.
More recently, a business network called Engage, whose members include Marks & Spencer, Microsoft and Barclays, agreed an accreditation called Age OK, a mark of approval that will be awarded to specific products and services that are judged to be age-friendly. This week the first Age OK accreditation was presented by Martin Bell to Sky, for a remote control designed to help those with weak sight.
So some businesses already know that the grey pound has plenty to offer them and are acting accordingly. Apart from complying with the incoming law, and giving them a warm sense of helping the needy, their motives are those of hard-nosed economic self-interest.
Legislation for change has at any time to confront the natural resistance of those who are happy with the status quo. In times of recession it is even more instinctive for businesses to cling to old, familiar ways – they assume that new legislation means increased red tape: in fact, this Bill often frees businesses to act more independently.
Who can now deny that the legislation of the 1970s that launched society towards a more equal future was a fair set of measures to introduce? It wasn’t long ago that a woman could not open a bank account or raise a mortgage without a male signature on the application. Some were denied access to their company’s pension fund. Now such situations strike us as old-fashioned, even quaint. Young women starting out today would be amazed by such restraints. They approach their future expecting and rejoicing in their equality.
We have seen the times and the law change attitudes. The Equality Bill is the next step, bringing a multitude of small but significant improvements where they will be welcome: preventing gay children from being bullied at school; making religious dietary needs available from meals-on-wheels services; requiring job recruitment to consider flexible and part-time working.
Those who oppose it probably don’t suffer too many disadvantages. The chances are that they are white, male, middle-aged, middle-class and in full-time employment. They may have loud voices but they don’t speak for the rest of us.